Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Tragedy on So Many Levels...

Last Wednesday, October 19, a young mother calmly stripped her three young boys and threw them into the Bay. The boys were 6 years, 2 years, and 16 months.

From the San Francisco Chronicle: "About a dozen family members spent Thursday afternoon meeting with police investigators and praying near the pier. They described Harris as a devoted mother who used to work as a nurse's assistant at a retirement home in Oakland, but over the last year-and-a-half fought an increasingly unsuccessful battle with mental illness."

Ms. Harris is 23 years old. She dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with her oldest son, who has a different father than the younger two. She did not marry either father. Besides mental illness, there was also some domestic violence.

According to later articles in The Chronicle, Ms. Harris's mother had contacted Social Services about getting partial custody of the children because she felt that her daughter was not taking her medication regularly. Social Services commented today that "mental illness is not a reason" to take away someone's children. Ms. Harris also mentioned "feeding her children to the sharks" while at a cousin's house earlier on Wednesday. The cousin called other family members to try to keep Ms. Harris at her house, but Ms. Harris left anyway. No one thought to call the police.

Three children are dead and a young woman's life is in shambles.

I have walked by Pier 7 many times during my lunch hour. I know how cold the water is in the Bay. Ms. Harris's oldest child, it was reported, cried out in fear as his mother stripped him. His body and that of his youngest brother, the baby, have not yet been recovered and may never be. I cannot imagine, on my worst day as a mother, stripping my children and throwing them over the railing at the edge of the pier. The voices in Ms. Harris's head must have been very loud indeed.

The First Reading for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time was about taking care of widows and children. Of not charging interest when we lend money. Of returning the cloak before sundown that we held for collateral. Father P., in his message in the bulletin, spoke of "The Culture of Death" with respect to the social safety net that seems to keep shrinking. That, in the case of the young mother and her three sons, seemed not to be there at all.

When I was a kid, I watched a TV program on circus performers. The high-wire and trapeze artists spoke about the safety net and about how it was important to fall a certain way. If you fell wrong, you could be killed--by the net. You have to be relaxed and land so that your back is almost flat and absorbs the impact. You bounce once or twice and only then can you crawl to the edge and somersault to the floor, stand, and bow to the audience.

Nets also have holes. They have to be just the right size to allow air through, to distribute the energy along the strings and outward. So here I am, again, with my internal debate. How do we, as a society, provide just enough of a net? Should we force adults with serious mental illnesses to take their medication? Should we insist that they live in supervised housing? How much credence should be given to concerns by family members? Do we automatically take children away from their parents if there is a pattern of mental illness? And where were the fathers of these children? Did they maintain contact with their sons? Did they notice Ms. Harris's mental condition deteriorating? Did they try to do anything or support the grandmother in her attempt to get partial custody? Once again, the question of personal responsibility, of responsibility for your own family, rears its head. The Government cannot take care of you. Not really. Not like your family can. Or your parish. Or your friends. We are the social net, not Washington, D.C., not Sacramento, not Oakland, not San Francisco. We need to reach out, make connections, and help each other through this life.

We need to break our addiction and enable ourselves.

Note: The Anchoress links to the MSNBC article and talks about how much madness can be blamed on our "anything goes" society. She covers more than just this incident, does it wisely and well.